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States explore free community college

By Adrienne Lu

Stateline.org

Published: Sunday, March 16 2014 7:02 p.m. MDT

Salt Lake Community College student Cade Taylor studies with his friend Brittany Taylor on campus in this Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013 file photo.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News Archives

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WASHINGTON — Several states are considering offering free tuition at community colleges, as the cost of a college education continues to climb and as high school diplomas no longer guarantee a living wage.

“Higher education for kids should not break families down” and result in a lifetime burden of debt, said Oregon state Sen. Mark Hass, a Democrat who sponsored legislation to study the viability of making tuition and fees at community colleges free to Oregon high school graduates.

In previous generations, Hass said, Oregonians could leave high school and easily find jobs in lumber mills, where they could earn a good living. But those days are gone, and jobs in auto garages, manufacturers and the service sector all require some technical training.

Hass said his bill also would help middle-class families whose children might attend community college for two years and then transfer to four-year colleges to save money.

Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber signed the bill with some reservations. While he testified for the bill last month, he questioned whether the money would be better spent on the state’s need-based scholarships for two- and four-year schools.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, is also pitching a plan to make tuition free at community colleges and colleges of applied technology.

“This is a bold promise,” Haslam said in his State of the State address in February. “It is a promise that will speak volumes to current and prospective employers. It is a promise that will make a real difference for generations of Tennesseans.”

The proposal is part of the governor’s “Drive to 55” initiative to increase the percentage of state residents with college degrees or advanced certificates from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025. Haslam estimates the proposal would cost about $34 million a year, paid for by creating a new endowment from the state lottery’s reserve fund.

However, in 2007 a similar proposal by former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen failed in the Tennessee legislature. Moreover, the efforts in both Oregon and Tennessee come after a decade during which both states cut funding for higher education, contributing to tuition hikes.

A study last year by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that states spent 28 percent less per student on higher education in fiscal year 2013 than they did in 2008, and that every state but North Dakota and Wyoming is investing less money in higher education now than before the recession. Oregon cut its higher education funding during that period by 43.6 percent, and tuition rose at both two-year and four-year public colleges in the state. Similarly, Tennessee reduced higher education spending by 30.1 percent, and tuition at its schools also went up.

In Mississippi, a bill for free tuition at community colleges died in committee last week because of funding concerns, but advocates hope the bill can be revived and passed next year.

Six of the state’s 15 community colleges already offer some form of tuition guarantee, meaning that after students have applied for financial aid from federal, state and other sources, county or private funding covers the remainder of the tuition cost, according to Kell Smith, a spokesman for the Mississippi Community College Board.

In Massachusetts, Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick in 2007 also proposed making community college free, although the measure failed.

California suspended tuition at its public colleges in 1960 with its Master Plan for Higher Education. But under fiscal pressures, the community colleges have charged enrollment fees since 1984-85. Tuition and fees at California’s public colleges still remain the lowest in the country.

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